Philosophers, Neighbours, and Tartars (Guest Post by Justin E. H. Smith)


The following is a guest post* by Justin E. H. Smith, professor of philosophy in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7. He is the author of several books, including the recently published The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Amazon link here). In addition to his academic publications, he has written a number of articles for the popular press and he also blogs. I’ve admired the ways in which Smith challenges us to reconsider how we should understand what philosophy is and what philosophers are, a theme he continues to explore here.


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Philosophers, Neighbours, and Tartars
by Justin E. H. Smith

In this post I would like to develop one of the central questions of my recent book, The Philosopher: A History in Six Types: Who is to count as a philosopher, and why?

In his 1762 Émile, ou De l’éducation, Jean-Jacques Rousseau criticises those philosophers who “will love the Tartars in order to avoid loving their neighbour.” The ethnic group in question would be more correctly called the ‘Tatars’, a wide family of Turkic groups living throughout the broader Black Sea region, and often invoked by Western Europeans in the Enlightenment as a stock example of savage peoples. (In what follows I will include the superfluous ‘r’ when it is Rousseau’s point of view that is at issue.)

Rousseau’s critique is directed at those cosmopolitan thinkers who turn their attention away from the concrete human reality that surrounds them, and towards what he sees as abstractions and fantasies of what human beings are like, or could be like, in far-away settings that we, here in 18th-century Geneva, will never encounter.

Though Rousseau could have relied on another example to make his point, I take this particular one to heart because I do in fact love the Tatars. I am a novice student of the grammar of the Volga Tatar language, an occasional defender of the rights of the Crimean Tatars who precede both the Ukrainians and the Russians in that disputed peninsula, and in general someone who comes to attention whenever that ethnonym appears in my newsfeed. So I am sensitive to Rousseau’s accusation that this attention of mine comes at the expense of concern for my neighbours here in 21st-century Paris, some of whom could indeed use some more neighbourly care than they are currently getting.

The realities of my place and time have also got me thinking recently about certain possibilities, two in particular, that may have escaped Rousseau’s attention. These are, namely, that the neighbours are themselves Tartars, and that the Tartars are themselves philosophers. According to the stereotype that makes Rousseau’s example work, Tartars are by definition far away, and by definition unphilosophical. But why suppose as much?

I have known at least two academic philosophers of Tatar ethnic background; both I can think of at the moment were formal logicians. But there is another sense in which a Tatar might be a philosopher, though, and this is the one taken seriously by Johann Jakob Brucker in his Historia critica philosophiae of 1744. Here Brucker, in his survey of the history of philosophy, speaks not only of the philosophy of the Greeks and the Romans, but also that of the ancient Celts, and indeed of the Scythians, who in the Enlightenment were often taken as the ancient ancestors of the modern world’s Tartars.

For Brucker, Scythian philosophy is nothing other than the sum total of expressions of Scythian culture: religious rites, rules of interaction, popular sayings, decorative motifs. Such a conception of philosophy as embedded in culture, in the way a pure element might be embedded in an ore, will in turn inform many of the attempts to articulate new understandings of philosophy in the context of the movement for decolonialisation in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Thus at the Second Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in Rome in 1959, a special commission on philosophy would urge that “the African philosopher should learn from the traditions, tales, myths, and proverbs of his people, so as to draw from them the laws of a true African wisdom complementary to the other forms of human wisdom to bring out the specific categories of African thought.”

Influenced by this decree, a number of innovative works would appear over the next decades which sought to study diverse cultures and natural languages of Africa as the vehicles of an implicit philosophy. Notable among these is Alexis Kagame’s La philosophie bantoue (1976), which itself credits Louis Hjelmslev’s dictum that ‘there is no philosophy without linguistics’. Kagame took this to mean that because we can engage in a formal study of the semantics of the Bantu languages, we are thereby given access to the Bantu philosophy that has been there all along, without ever being called by that name.

One might worry that Kagame’s approach creates a double standard: if cultural expressions such as proverbs are to count as philosophy in Africa, then we will need a good argument as to what it is that makes these proverbs substantially different from the ones passed down in the extra-institutional oral traditions of Europe, such as those associated with agriculture, and as to why an African should be said to be participating in philosophy simply to the extent that he or she is a transmitter of a culture’s proverbs, while by contrast a European, in order to be a philosopher, has to leave the farm, go to the city, master Latin and the forms of the syllogism, and in general learn to stop being so folksy.

And yet the expansion of philosophy to include the study of culture, as urged at the 1959 congress, has obvious benefits, even if it stopped short in supposing that European thought somehow constitutes an exception, that it is somehow independent of culture, and that the study of European philosophy is not, in the end, a branch of anthropology. For one thing, it enables us to see how Rousseau’s stark contrast between the ‘philosopher’ and the ‘Tartar’ might not match up with reality, even if the Tartar in question is not lecturing on polyvalent logic at the Academy of Sciences, but is simply excelling at whatever tasks it might be expedient or laudable to pursue within the context of traditional Tartar culture: war-making, metallurgy, the recitation of oral epic.

Beyond any concern we might have about double standards, there is good reason to suspect that these things should not be entirely neglected by philosophers (in the narrower sense in which Rousseau understands the term). They offer points of entry to the variety of expressions of human ingenuity, which taken together surely may be expected to reveal something of what being human is all about. And if that’s not a philosophical matter, it would be difficult to say what is.

So, pace Rousseau, the categories of ‘Tartar’ and of ‘philosopher’ are not opposed. But what about ‘neighbour’? As in the 18th century, one recurring criticism of cosmopolitanism today is that it exchanges real, affective commitment to a real community of shared interests and values in favour of an abstract commitment to a mostly fictional global community of all human beings. It is mostly fictional, critics suppose, because what we are doing when we speak of ‘humanity’ is simply projecting our own very local sliver of values and tastes out into the world, and avoiding contact with members of other cultures who might complicate matters for us by failing to share these values and tastes.

But that’s the thing about neighbours: unless you live in some gated community or selective co-op or village full of like-minded bigots, the chances are quite high that you have very little in common with the person living next to you. I don’t know whether any of my neighbours in Paris are Tatars, but I am certain that many of them are different from me in precisely the way Rousseau imagined that Tartars are different from him, and therefore, so he imagined, from ‘Europeans’. This presumption was dubious in 1762, and in the era of mass immigration it is all the more so.

Rousseau is in a certain sense right: you should of course take an interest in the well-being of your neighbour, and try to understand what it is that gives meaning to their life. The fact that you are yourself a philosopher shouldn’t make doing so any less urgent. But nor should you presume that the categories of ‘philosopher’, ‘neighbour’, and ‘Tartar’ are distinct. Their overlap with one another, in fact, constitutes both a powerful response to Rousseau, as well as an argument in itself for cosmopolitanism. Philosophy is everywhere, and so are neighbours, and interest in what the Tartars are doing is as neighbourly as it is philosophical.
(image: Grigory Gagarin, “Djighit a Sardar-Abbat”)

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